He still feels nervous when he talks about the first time he investigated an honour killing. A woman from the martial Naicker caste had eloped with a Dalit man. The villagers tracked them down and brought them back. “They tied her up with a chain in a public place like a dog,” says Kathir, 50, founder of the Tamil Nadu-based non-profit, Evidence, which has legally pursued around 250 honour killings since 2005.
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“They collected money to ‘purify’ the temple that had been made ‘impure’ by the girl’s association with a Dalit. They used the money to whitewash all the 70 houses in the locality. For three days the girl was kept alive… given food in a dog bowl. On the third day, she was killed by poisoning.” When Kathir reached the village the next day, all he could see were her bones. “The village looked like it had just celebrated a festival — whitewashed houses and a temple with a new look,” he says.
Despite the fact that there have been at least 60 Supreme Court and High Court judgments against honour crimes, relatives, caste groups and khap panchayats continue to use brutal means to prevent young people from selecting life partners. Kathir believes that though most Indians agree honour crimes shouldn’t take place, they also sympathise with the parents who commit these crimes. In an age when the right to choice is being rapidly criminalised, Kathir’s work is more crucial — and dangerous — than ever.
Life and death
“Is your caste more important than your daughter?” Kathir once asked a father imprisoned for conspiring to murder his daughter. “It is more important than god,” the man replied. A few years ago, Kathir had a bounty on his head after a sessions court awarded the death penalty to six people, including the father of a woman, for conspiring and killing her Dalit husband. Kathir didn’t hit pause even when he faced two attempts on his life. In September, he presented Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin with a proposed bill to end honour killings.
Two instances in his growing up years are seared in Kathir’s journey of caste consciousness. He was in Class VIII in the 1980s when his cousin was gang raped. The panchayat fined the perpetrators ₹80; nobody filed a first information report of the crime. The second event occurred three years later, when his Class XI teacher pointedly asked him his caste name. His silence in front of all his classmates was interpreted accurately: ‘You are Scheduled Caste’. That night he asked his father why he hadn’t been born to an upper caste family. Both men cried.
In the years after, Kathir, who was born at home in a northern Tamil Nadu hamlet on a day the nearby Veeranam lake — one of the State’s biggest — overflowed into his family’s tiny hut, found answers in the lives of Che Guevara, Periyar and Ambedkar. He embraced the inclusiveness of Martin Luther King and understood the rage of Malcolm X. Somewhere along the line he dropped his given Christian name, Vincent Raj, and identified simply as Kathir.
Yes, I am a Dalit
Now the well-known Madurai-based activist wears his identity proudly. “I strongly believe the first step to Dalit liberation is to openly say, ‘Yes, I am a Dalit’,” he tells me, explaining how an Australian cricketer inspired him to savour the response this statement often elicits. “Ricky Ponting says every time his bat hits a boundary, Indian audiences go very silent and he enjoys this silence. I also started enjoying the silence when I began telling people I was a Dalit.”
For a decade before he founded Evidence, he worked in the fields of environmental activism and human rights, seeing casteism everywhere he travelled in Tamil Nadu, from Dalit residential ghettos to teashops, temples and even burial grounds. “Casteism continues even after death,” he says.
Honour killings form only part of Evidence’s body of work. The organisation has worked on 3,500 caste atrocity cases in Tamil Nadu. Its 17 full-time staff are supported by a volunteer army of hundreds of fact-finders and lawyers across the State. Five hundred Evidence cases are presently in court, Kathir says. “I find a very big gap in Dalit activism,” he adds. “Intellectual, legal and research activities are not connected to people-oriented activities.” He wants Dalit politics to be more inclusive, and accepting of all allies.
Che and Charlie
The idea to set up an organisation came after he attended a conference in Durban where Dalit delegates emphasised that caste discrimination was very similar to racial discrimination. They were unable to convince their audience that caste was more than just a domestic issue and decided that they would collect strong evidence about caste atrocities, and that’s where the name Evidence came from.
Kathir’s own love story is an intercaste one. He married a fellow activist from the Thevar community, often associated with violence against Dalits. His father-in-law urged caution. But the couple went ahead, in a small, non-religious ceremony at home under the images of two of their favourite patron saints: Che Guevara and Charlie Chaplin.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.